SEWARD, Neb. – Making its first-ever NAIA Volleyball National Championship appearance, the 16th-ranked Concordia University volleyball team came up agonizingly short in each set on Saturday afternoon. Champions of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, visiting Olivet Nazarene University (Ill.) crashed the party with a 25-23, 27-25, 26-24 upset of the Bulldogs inside Walz Arena.
The Tigers, coached by Brenda Williams, were making their 11th all-time trip to the national tournament (second in a row). Olivet Nazarene (24-16) fought off Concordia set-point opportunities in the second and third games and then celebrated when Emma Ross’ attack found the floor for match point.
Fourth-year head coach Scott Mattera’s squad finished at 26-9 overall in a season that included a GPAC championship match appearance.
“That’s what nationals volleyball looks like,” Mattera said. “(Olivet Nazarene) is not going to give it to you. They’re a solid team and they made very few mistakes. We got a little bit stagnant offensively here and there.
“This is our first trip here. Hopefully we learned something and I think we did. It’s awesome that our seniors got to be part of our first national tournament.”
The Bulldogs found themselves in position to claim each set despite playing most of the day without senior Claire White who re-aggravated an ankle injury in both the first and second games. With White sidelined, sophomore Mikayla Higgins provided a spark. She landed kills on three of her first four swings to fuel an energized crowd that showed large even with students on Thanksgiving break.
In a contest that was dead-even from a statistical standpoint, the Tigers were just a bit cleaner. Sophomore outside hitter Jeslyn Roat enjoyed a big day with 13 kills on 26 swings. She drove a stake through the hearts of Concordia faithful with set-point kills in the first and second games. Roat’s contributions were key on an evening when CCAC co-player of the year Becky DeRuiter was contained to the tune of eight kills and five total blocks.
Junior Paige Getz got increased opportunities on the outside for Concordia and floored a match-high 14 kills. Getz helped lead the charge in the third set when she pummeled a kill to make it 20-16 in favor of the Bulldogs. She went for another that pushed the score to 21-18. Olivet Nazarene earned it down the stretch, racking up eight of its last 11 points of the third game on kills.
The Tigers picked up their eighth win all-time in national tournament play. Meanwhile, Concordia looks forward to 2016. Six of the Bulldogs’ seven all-conference selections will return for a program that has improved each season under Mattera’s direction.
“We’re going to miss some leadership there. We’re losing some very special kids,” Mattera said. “But we also have a huge core coming back that’s going to be even hungrier.”
That core will include the likes of junior setter Alayna Kavanaugh (35 assists on Saturday) and sophomore defensive specialist Jocelyn Garcia (24 digs). Junior Taylor Workman, another key returning piece, posted 10 kills versus Olivet Nazarene. Higgins filled in superbly on the outside and chipped in nine kills.
Olivet Nazarene outhit Concordia .224 to .185. The Tigers held advantages of 48-44 in kills, 56-52 in digs and 8-7 in blocks.
Pool play at the 2015 NAIA Volleyball National Championship will get underway on Dec. 1. The NAIA will announce pool assignments on Sunday. The final 24 teams in the field will converge at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. The action begins with six pools of four teams in each. For more information on the NAIA volleyball national championship, click HERE.